Wednesday, November 30, 2022
Nov. 30, 2022

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Schmidt: Lawmakers have little reason to respond


If an employee was completely unresponsive to her or his employer, the employee would likely not have a job for very long. Unfortunately, this is not the case in politics. Americans’ approval rating of the job Congress is doing has fallen to 18 percent, yet in the 2020 general election, 93 percent of incumbents nationwide won their reelection bids. Our political system is so broken that elected officials are not motivated to be responsive or accountable.

With a single question I wanted to ask Missouri’s congressional delegation, I called or emailed the offices of Sens. Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley, Democratic Reps. Cori Bush and Emanuel Cleaver II, and Republicans Ann Wagner, Blaine Luetkemeyer, Vicki Hartzler, Sam Graves, Billy Long, and Jason Smith. No one responded for comment. Zero. The failure to respond was sweeping and bipartisan.

The disappointing reality is that none of them had any incentive to reply to me.

Let’s take abortion. A St. Louis University/YouGov poll conducted in August showed wide majorities disagreed with a lack of exceptions for rape and incest or when the life of the mother is at risk, with 75 percent of respondents, including 60 percent of Republicans, supporting legal abortions in the case of rape.

Under Missouri’s trigger law, which passed in 2019, abortions will only be permitted in cases of a medical emergency. There are no exceptions for rape or incest.

Defunding the police is widely unpopular. According to an Ipsos/USA Today poll, only 18 percent of respondents supported the movement to defund the police, and 58 percent said they opposed it. In February, Bush doubled down on her use of the defund slogan despite members of her party asking her not to.

A functional government operates with a give-and-take structure between elected officials and the public. Citizens should know where their representatives stand on pressing issues, and lawmakers should understand the needs and desires of their constituents. Only then can voters determine whether their views are aligned with a candidate. At least in theory, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

The combination of gerrymandering, noncompetitive districts, hyper-polarization, dark money and a lack of accountability has created a stew of political dysfunction. Competitive congressional districts have been steadily declining for decades; The Cook Political Report estimates that less than 8 percent of congressional districts will be competitive come November.

Hyper-partisan pressure

I suspect the lack of competitive districts leaves an overwhelming majority of Americans feeling that their votes don’t matter, while parties and candidates feel they don’t need to work to earn votes.

Effective governing in America requires compromise. When more than 90 percent of congressional districts lean toward one of the two major parties, most representatives probably have little incentive to compromise. Elected officials increasingly face strong pressures to be hyper-partisan, which has made governing very difficult.

Back in 2018, Missourians passed the Clean Missouri Amendment with 62 percent of the vote. The amendment required lawmakers to wait two years before they could turn around and lobby their colleagues. It aimed to eliminate almost all lobbyist gifts worth more than $5. It aimed to eliminate partisan gerrymandering. It also aimed to tighten candidate-contribution caps.

Missourians rolled back the Clean Missouri Amendment just two years later. The difference was 59,145 votes. Although Clean Missouri wasn’t perfect, it made progress in fixing what ails us.

Thus far, the attempts to change the incentives and mend the system have failed. There should be no expectation that we will have a more responsive or functional lawmaking structure soon. Because when it comes down to it, we get what we vote for.

Lynn Schmidt is a columnist and Editorial Board member of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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